The TSA Paid HOW MUCH For A Randomizer App?!?

Filed Under: Security/TSA

The TSA promotes its risked based inclusion techniques as one of the ways it keeps travelers safe and saves taxpayers money. For a couple of years the TSA has been using a randomizer app at dozens of airports, which randomly directs people into the PreCheck lane (because nothing quite helps manage risk like a randomizer app). Per Bloomberg, here’s the purpose of this randomizer app:

The TSA uses software to randomly choose whether travelers in the PreCheck lanes go left or right, making it harder for potential terrorists to detect any patterns. The randomization also helps to prevent accusations of racial or other profiling.

For those of you who haven’t seen the randomizer app in action, here’s a video (the commentary is sort of hilarious):

Kevin Burke submitted a Freedom Of Information Act request with the TSA to see just how much it cost the TSA to build this app, given how simplistic it seems. As he explains, a beginner could code an app like that in a day, so you’d think this didn’t cost the TSA very much. Well, unfortunately you’d be wrong.

There were several bids for the contract to develop this randomizer app, and IBM ended up winning the contract with a bid of $336,413.59. That’s right, the TSA paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a randomizer app.


It’s worth noting that there were eight other payments as part of the same award, which totaled $1,444,315. Unfortunately we don’t know all the details of the rest of the contract, though.

Your taxpayer dollars at work, folks…

  1. Well, at least at MSP their randomizer app is not working. Instead of sending passengers to left or right it sends them to nowhere. They opened a new TSA are in the airport and it has been a total disaster.

  2. Since we don’t know all the facts, it seems somewhat your “Your taxpayer dollars..” comment seems, well, rather uncouth. Please don’t echo your friend Gary, with his Koch Brothers influenced political views, following his lead in politicizing your blog.

  3. Liberals: we want randomizer app so nobody feels like they were singled out. Not a single innocent should be persecuted, even if many guilty get through.

    Conservatives: whites can’t be terrorists. Just give special attention to all the non whites, problem solved.

    Congress: we have to waste money so then we can complain about how this president is wasting money so we will feel that we are doing our job.

  4. I work in government IT, the government spends Billions of dollars in IT ($79B in FY15 alone). It’s safe to say that millions of dollars go towards buying crap IT. $336k is a “small” order…

  5. There’s no such thing as a truly “random” computer-generated number. So I imagine what they were paying for was a proprietary algorithm for generating randomness, which I would expect to cost some serious cash.

    Nonetheless, they would be better off flipping a coin.

  6. What a pile of crap. I mean so pointless to have the agent standing there pressing the ipad each time.

    Oh the TSA how you continue to fail….

  7. I’m sure someone else will know more, but it’s not necessarily the TSA’s fault. Isn’t this stuff centrally contracted or ordered by the GSA? Having worked on some government contracts, they often require a ton of info, due diligence, etc – which all drive costs up.

    Our normal RFP is approx. 40 pages. The govt. RFP was 1300. For a similar sized project.

    I’m not saying the TSA is awesome. But I’d bet this has more to do with overall government process. Not TSA-specific process.

  8. Why would you think the TSA would be different from any other government agency when it comes to contracting stuff? They all do this crap. TSA’s no different.

  9. @JC the problem I have with that 336k is not a lot is that’s the problem with the government. I used to work in the government prior to my current job and that mentality is why so much money is wasted. When thousands of projects take that approach we waste billions of dollars. You have to look at the small to change the big. Which is probably why it will never change lol.

  10. var passenger = on_button_press
    if (passenger = caucasian) {
    send passenger expediete line
    } else {
    send passenger interrogation line

  11. Where do they even use this app? I fly out of SFO and have never seen it. Is this only for the regular, non-pre-check lane?

  12. @jim – Be careful, those coding skills will net you $336k!

    @kimberly – the point was to avoid profiling. While any ‘randomizer’ is based of potentially non-random data this kind of thing is still a step in the right direction. The price, however, is NOT valid. From the database world it’s simple, maybe programmatically there is a similarly simple way. Install MySQL (free) and pull a RAND number that way. This is not new technology and thus should cost someone a limited amount to build it out. Certainly not $1.4M…

  13. @Robert

    “This is not new technology…”

    Yes, that’s my point. The only reason to pay a significant amount would be for a PROPRIETARY algorithm. Any standard rand function is widely accessible and therefore knowable (since it’s impossible for a computer to generate a truly random number).

    They would still be better off flipping a coin. I’ve never known a coin capable of racial profiling.

  14. Possibly the contract included the hardware as well — hundreds or thousands of tablets?????

  15. Kimberly’s comments hit the nail on the head re: Random number generation vs. a coin toss.

  16. @kimberly – proprietary or not I can build them something for $1k that will do the same thing. Hire any competent development shop for a few hundred $k and you should get more than what you’re looking for. $1.4M? Overpaid. I know dozens who could do this, quickly and cheaply.

  17. 1. The bid was for a maximum over the life of the entire project. Think of the number of airports.

    2. Hardware (which is going to be more than just a couple of tablets) is included.

    3. Random number generation isn’t quite as simple as its made to be.

    @Kimberly: It isn’t that hard to manipulate the outcome of a coin toss. Also harder to audit, unless someone puts up some kind of tamperproof video recording system up for bid. Imagine how much THAT would cost!

    @Jim: Multiple syntax errors plus a confusion between assignment and comparison. If it’s suppose to be pseudocode, then it was a poor decision to make it look that close to code. C- for effort.

  18. Note that TSA does not need a random number generator.

    What is uses is something that randomly generates one of two (and only two) outcomes. Which is similar, but not the same.

  19. The quoted statement from Bloomberg makes no sense: “The TSA uses software to randomly choose whether travelers in the PreCheck lanes go left or right.” Passengers in the Pre-Check lane don’t go left or right, they go straight to the ID checker who scans the BP and verifies Pre-Check. What Bloomberg was probably trying to say is that the TSA randomly selects passengers who are NOT in the Pre-Check lane to go into the Pre-Check lane (which is why the Pre-Check lane is often three times the length of the Priority lane and moves at a snail’s pace). However, in the video, the TSA person uses the app to direct people into one of two non-Pre-Check lanes, and confirms this verbally.

  20. We’d have to see the “attached Performance Work Statement” to even guess if $300k is outrageous or reasonable. Does it include installation on TSA hardware? Does it include support? Etc.

  21. As someone who manages large IT projects for a living, a $300K contract to build a app like this is actually not that high. With average industry rates, you are looking at probably 3-4 people working 3-4 months to design, build, and test a app like this. Then IBM would most likely have to include roll out and warranty support for a period of time as well.

  22. At Norwegian airports, the metal detectors passengers walk thorugh are used to randomly choose which passengers to be subjected to extra scrutiny. I would think the equipment in use is pretty much the same all over the world, so couldn’t the TSA just use that method?

  23. While I dont disagree that government contracts are extremely wasteful, building a TSA randomizer app is a little more complicated than just writing a few lines of code…

  24. hmmm..strange. Apparently my significant other (from Singapore) always gets TSA precheck – I guess the “randomizer” has some fixed input-outputs. I usually have a 50/50 chance. Agree with Kimberley above, there is no such thing as a true random opportunity generator. Coin toss is the best.

  25. @Jared, does your significant other get Pre-Check by being directed into the Pre-Check lane, or is Pre-Check printed on his boarding pass? The former is in theory random, while the latter is done a few days before the flight.

  26. @LCH, the metal detectors used by the TSA do this as well (it’s not actually random, it’s every x uses). However, this is used to select some passengers for *additional* screening. The TSA randomizer as used in the video only directs passengers to certain lines, the screening is the same regardless of which line. The TSA does use a randomizer to select passengers for Pre-Check who are not enrolled; this selects some passengers for *reduced* screening, and needs to be done before the passenger goes through a body scanner or metal detector.

  27. @Randy: You are correct in that she gets Pre-Check printed on her boarding pass. Interestingly, she always checks in on her phone and is not eligible for pre-check according to the boarding pass on the phone. Since she prefers to keep a paper copy of the boarding pass, she always goes to the airport and uses the automated counters to obtain her paper boarding pass. Then, she always finds a TSA Pre-Check eligible logo on the top. It’s a very strange phenemenon that we have been curious about and to trace down the origins of. It can be frustrating sometimes since many times they direct us to go into separate lines even when traveling together so now one person just waits (and at large airports this can be 45 min – 60 min).

  28. @Jared,

    Very interesting that her mobile BP does not have Pre-Check indicated, yet her printed BP does. A few days before a flight, the operating carrier submits the PNR to the TSA. The TSA decides if the passenger needs to be subjected to extra screening (“SSSS”) or expedited screening (“Pre-Check”), and adds this to the PNR. When the passenger checks in within 24 hours of the flight, if the passenger needs extra screening, the carrier refuses online check-in, and if the passenger gets Pre-Check, this is printed on the BP. So, it’s hard to explain why the mobile BP wouldn’t show it. Which airline does this happen with?

  29. “Install MySQL”.

    No, gawd no. No green starts with this… ever.

    PostgreSQL is better (more SQL-standard compliant, faster (much better query planner), and cheaper (easier to maintain).

    As many of my clients have found out, starting out with MySQL merely makes you wish PostgreSQL when it’s far too late to change.

  30. @Randy – having said that, it’s probably only 50-70 flights a year since we operate a biz jet company and most travels are completed on our aircraft

  31. not sure why people bringing in SQL to this discussion. There isn’t anything needed from a datasource. There is no need to look up a passenger, look up ticket etc. It is a simple app to show Left or Right on screen. Get the ipad internal clock and get current time’s milli- or microseconds. if it is odd number, – go right, if it is even number, go left. Even if the date/clock isn’t correct, it has no effect as the milli and microsecond are rolling non stop. Most random number generators use the current time somewhere in the calculation for final result.

  32. Awesome. So now a computer will determine whether my penis gets grabbed or not. Seriously the TSA is absolutely out of control. They apparently think the constitution doesn’t apply in the airports. What has this constant lock down achieved? Nothing actually. In fact, several tests have found that the TSA was unable to find contraband in 70% of all cases>, sometimes even failing to find firearms. I guess they were to busy gawking at people’s private parts on the X-rays and groping strangers. It’s time for the TSA to be disbanded, period.

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